The Cable

U.S. embassies in Arab world abusing foreign workers

Contractors working for U.S. embassies throughout the Arab world have been abusing foreign workers through unsanitary living conditions, coercive hiring practices, and a host of other indignities, according to a new State Department report released Monday.

The State Department's Office of the Inspector General looked into six contracts at the U.S. embassies in Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and at two consulates general in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. It found what it referred to as indicators of coercion (confiscation of documents at the work destination), indicators of exploitation (bad living conditions and payment issues), and indicators of abuse of vulnerability (absence of language education and general abuse of a lack of information).

The six contracts examined -- for the employment of janitors, gardeners, and guards at these diplomatic posts -- totaled about $18 million.

"More than 70 percent of foreign contract workers live in overcrowded, unsafe, or unsanitary conditions, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.," the report stated. "In Riyadh, the embassy's 19 gardeners share a dilapidated apartment building with numerous fire and safety hazards."

Janitors in Abu Dhabi get an average of 24 square feet of living space. (By way of comparison, federal prisoners in the U.S. typically get between 45 and 60 square feet.) In Abu Dhabi, 8 to 10 workers bunk in a 12 by 18-foot room; there are only 15 to 20 bathrooms in a camp there that houses over 450 people. According to the report, the contractor in charge of those workers led the OIG investigators on a wild goose chase, first taking them to a building that was not actually where the workers lived.

What's more, workers of different nationalities often received different wages for doing the same jobs. For example, a Bangladeshi janitor at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh gets paid $4.44 a day. A worker of Indian origin doing the same job makes double, $8.89 a day, the report found. At the U.A.E. embassy, most guards make $22.71 a day, equal to the minimum wage. But the Ethiopian guards there make only $13.62 per day, well below the legal minimum.

Workers at the U.S. embassy in Kuwait weren't aware they are entitled to two weeks of vacation per year, leading one employee to work eight straight years without taking any time off whatsoever.

The report said there was no "severe" abuse, defined as conduct that clearly violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which would include sex trafficking or illicit activities related to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery. But since there's no clear monitoring system for trafficking violations, the OIG ultimately couldn't say if trafficking violations were occurring.

Seventy-seven percent of workers interviewed said they had to pay a recruitment fee to get their jobs at the embassies and over 50 percent of those said their fee was greater than six months salary. Every contractor examined by the OIG confiscated the passports of their workers. Inappropriate garnishing of workers' wages was rampant, and most workers were forced to seek extra, often-illegal second jobs to supplement their salaries.

The OIG set forth seven recommendations for better protecting contract workers. These include the suggestion that embassies discuss local labor laws with contractors, monitor compliance and even require certification of contractors, and require that contractors explain labor laws to their workers. It also recommended that the State Department's Bureau of Administration should increase its training on the issue.

Most of the embassies investigated agreed with the OIG's report, but the Bureau of Administration's Office of the Procurement Executive (A/OPE) disagreed with all seven of the OIG's recommendations. The U.S. embassy in Riyadh provided no comments on the report whatsoever.

The OIG called A/OPE's explanations for why it disagreed with the recommendations "unclear and unresponsive to the intent of the recommendations."

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